In January 2018, members of the Railroad Street Youth Project unveil the new W.E.B. Du Bois mural located in the alley between Railroad Street and the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington. The mural was part of a months-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’ birth. Photo: Terry Cowgill

15 years later, Berkshire Hills weighs another proposal to rename a school after Du Bois

Whether Thursday night's hearing will be as contentious as Jan. 18, 2005, when a divided school committee voted 6-4 to name the building after the Muddy Brook, is anyone's guess.

Great Barrington — Those who are tired of controversy in the frenzied and fractious era of Donald Trump will have to brace themselves this week for local tumult. In addition to the hourly outrages coming from the nation’s capital, contentious debate is likely on Thursday night when, for the second time in 15 years, the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee opens a public hearing on whether to rename one of its three schools after Great Barrington’s most celebrated native son.

W.E.B. Du Bois in 1918.

On the surface, renaming a school after perhaps Great Barrington’s most famous and celebrated resident would seem like a no-brainer. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois grew up in Great Barrington; was the first African American to obtain a Ph.D. from Harvard; and was a world-renowned scholar, writer and leader for social and racial justice.

Du Bois, a noted public intellectual, was seen by many as a trailblazer who paved the way for Martin Luther King Jr. and was “woke” to racial injustice before it became fashionable. Du Bois was also the subject of two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies by distinguished historian David Levering Lewis.

But in 2004, veterans groups and others mobilized in opposition to the naming attempt, objecting to Du Bois’ anti-capitalist views, the fact that he moved to Ghana and embraced of communism late in life. Du Bois also famously gave a eulogy in 1953 for the notorious communist dictator Joseph Stalin, calling the Soviet leader “courageous” and “a great man.”

Still others argued that there were others more deserving of the naming honor, such as veterans from the town who gave their lives fighting communism in service to their country.

The playground at the northern end of the Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School property. Photo: Terry Cowgill

In the end, the pressure was too much for the school committee, which opted instead to name the new elementary school building after a small watercourse, the Muddy Brook, that runs behind the building on Monument Valley Road.

Whether Thursday night’s hearing will be as contentious as Jan. 18, 2005, when a divided school committee voted 6-4 to name the building after the Muddy Brook, is anyone’s guess. Current school committee Chair Steve Bannon is the only member who was on the committee at that time. He voted for naming the school after the Muddy Brook.

Click here to read the minutes, which include a verbatim transcript of the deliberations. The meeting lasted more than 100 minutes. Berkshire Hills was completing a $29 million capital project that created regional elementary and middle schools and consolidated all of the district’s schools on one campus.

Local schools in Great Barrington, Housatonic, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge were closed later that year and their students transferred to one of the two new schools on Monument Valley Road, adjacent to the Stockbridge Road campus of Monument Mountain Regional High School, which had opened almost 40 years earlier.

A sign welcomes visitors to Monument Valley Regional Elementary School. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The current effort is focused on renaming Monument Valley Regional Middle School after Du Bois, in part because there is a plan to incorporate Du Bois’ life into the middle school curriculum.

Petitions circulated last year in the district’s three member towns asking for voters to endorse the renaming of the middle school after Du Bois. They were endorsed overwhelmingly by a show of hands in Great Barrington and comfortably in Stockbridge and West Stockbridge. The Great Barrington petition was filed by Tim Likarish, a volunteer at Multicultural BRIDGE. The Berkshire Hills school committee will have the final say.

Despite his status as hero to many, previous efforts to honor Du Bois have stirred discontent in some quarters. At around the same time as Monument Mountain Regional High School was opening, another controversy erupted from an effort to honor Du Bois.

Signage offers information at the W.E.B. Du Bois National Historic Site off Route 23 in Great Barrington. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Spurred by the assassination of King and the 100th anniversary of Du Bois’ birth, a committee redoubled its efforts in 1968 to create a Du Bois memorial at the Du Bois Boyhood Homesite at what is now the known as the W.E.B. Du Bois National Historic Site in Great Barrington.

Notables such as civil rights leader Julian Bond and actor Ossie Davis were present. Bond, one attendee said, “gave the speech of his life.” That effort, ultimately successful, nonetheless divided the public, and became a bone of contention in the news media both locally and nationally.

Along with Cindy Arienti, Housatonic resident and Marine Corps veteran Andy Moro organized a petition last year against the current effort to name a school after Du Bois. The petition has 251 signatures with a goal of 300.

Two years ago, a group of town veterans, including Moro and Charles Plungis, expressed their disapproval to the town library trustees of their plans to commission a statue of Du Bois and place it in the front of the Mason Library on Main Street.

See video below. On June 14, 2018, library trustees listen to veterans and other residents discuss a proposal to place a statue of W.E.B. Du Bois in front of the Mason Library in Great Barrington:

Also speaking at the library trustees meeting was Justin F. Jackson, an associate professor of history at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington. Jackson has lectured before on Du Bois and attempted to put the man’s actions and writings into some perspective.

See video below of Justin Jackson, an assistant professor of history at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, lecturing on W.E.B. Du Bois as part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College lecture series and the 150th birth anniversary celebration of Du Bois:

Jackson also wrote a three-part series for The Edge in which he explored Du Bois’ complicated legacy, including his commitment to equality and passion for social and racial justice. Jackson’s Edge essays can be found here:

The school committee public hearing on the school renaming begins Thursday, Sept. 3, at 6 p.m. A vote is possible. Click here to see information about how to attend via telephone, Zoom or Facebook Live.